Receiving and Responding to a Mail Survey: 
Phenomenological Examination

James G. Helgeson
School of Business Administration, Gonzaga University

Researchers are interested in how receiving a mailed survey fits into the life of their anticipated respondents. A research methodology that is designed to allow a researcher to come in contact with events, as they are actually lived and experienced by individuals, is phenomenology.

From a natural science (for example, physics, biology), logical/positivist viewpoint, phenomenological methodologies would be bad science. But the fact is that a positivist versus a phenomenologist approach to knowledge acquisition springs from entirely different philosophical roots. These differences become particularly important when considered in the light of the pursuit of knowledge in the human sciences (for example, sociology, marketing). Some of the differences between these two views of science are presented in Table 1. (See Giorgi 1986, and Valle & King 1978 for a discussion of these differences, Hunt 1990 for how to blend the two approaches, and Helgeson & Mager 1992 for a cookbook approach to conducting phenomenological research).


Logical positivist/Cartesian view   Phenomenological view
Man’s place in the world:
People are objects in the world
vs People are indissoluably united and interrelated with their world
Knowledge acquisition:
Focus is on theoretical structures from a third person view
vs Focus is on experience from a first person view
Logic is deductive and inductive reasoning (for example, calculative)  vs Logic is based on finding patterns as they emerge (for example, meditative)
Approach is through examination of the component parts of a phenomenon vs Approach is through examination of experiences and their interrelationship to each other in the world in which they are found
Goal is to reduce a phenomenon to quantitative dimensions which adhere to laws and principles vs Goal is to develop a theme-based description of the phenomenon